The Galápagos and Machu Picchu: What I saw, learned and brought back as gifts to my life.

 

I am a person who is sensitive to motion and altitude, so why would I organize a program with my wife and 10 of our friends to be on a boat for a week and climb a mountain? First and foremost because I love to learn and challenge myself, and secondly I trusted Road Scholar to create a safe, exciting and rewarding experience for all of us. For every one of our friends, “The Best of the Galápagos and Peru: From Enchanted Islands to Machu Picchu” was their first Road Scholar experience and for most it was their first experience with group travel. Jane and I had experienced and learned about Croatia, India, Cuba and Botswana, Zambia and South Africa with Road Scholar previously and knew we were in for something special.

Every one of the ‘daring dozen,’ as we named ourselves, arrived a day early into Ecuador before the program started. Eight folks headed right out to take a picture of themselves at the actual Equator! The rest stayed back to rest in anticipation for the journey ahead. Our preparation materials and our group call with the location experts had given us information to feel ready and excited. But truly, nothing could have prepared us for the depth of awe and joy we would have for the next 17 days.

Like many great civilizations, the Ecuadorian people are blessed by the river whose three currents bring rich nutrients and unique life. You may be familiar with how Charles Darwin studied nature along the Amazon River and saw evolution first hand. He saw how birds evolved smaller wings when they arrived on the islands without any predators, and how other birds found a niche in nature that was not fulfilled by any other creature on the island and even changed their behavior. For example, an owl which learned to hunt during the day instead of the night. We learned from a university professor who teaches courses in genetics, the biodiversity of Andean crops and Agricultural research the expansive connection between nature, the people and the economy. For example, in Ecuador they have flower plantations and grow the strongest most, beautiful long stem (I mean up to 5 feet!) roses in the world, and they are so robust they are shipped out all over the globe every day.

The 30-mile long city of Quito has a rich history through various conquests and revolutions to its eventual designation as an UNESCO cultural heritage site. The old town section boasts churches and palaces alongside the cubist structures of the 1950’s. The influence of religion over the centuries brought elaborate churches built over destroyed ‘pagan’ temples and today you can see the Mephisto (mixed people) and indigenous cultures evidenced by healing ceremonies and western medicine clinics on the same street! The woman we saw receiving a healing from the Shaman seemed very happy with the result!

Did I mention that all this was learned on day 1?! And the highlight of the first day for me was going to the Museo Casa del Alabado and seeing a display of pre-Colombian art organized by Andean Cosmology. We saw intact gorgeous artifacts representing life in the underworld, on the earth and in the sky. The quality and condition of these pieces is impossible to describe or capture. As if that wasn’t amazing enough we were introduced to an artist whose images I will never forget. Oswaldo Guayasamin’s paintings are housed in what he named “the museum of humankind.” It was a lot like a cathedral dedicated to the human experience at least by the way I felt upon entering and seeing his exquisite portraits and depictions of human suffering. He captures the spirit of human beings in anger, sadness, despair and hope. He paints the possibility of peace by understanding the effects of oppression and hoping his searing and honest depiction could inspire other behavior. The artist’s divine discontent with the affairs of the world and the faces implore us to see suffering and to have the desire to see it transformed.

During our formal orientation and the day before we boarded the gorgeous Tip Top II vessel that would be home for seven days, Jane handed out Blue Footed Booby socks to all our fellow travels and instructors! She had run across them in researching Galápagos and as it turns out two young boys were moved by the threat of losing Boobies to the world, so they created the socks and a foundation to support them: www.bluefeetfoundation.com. We also created a couple of rituals to tie our community together for the experience ahead. Jane and I knew everyone, but most were just getting to know the others. So we did an intention-setting ceremony, where our friend Lois brought red string for everyone and each of us spoke our desires for the program. One theme was being ‘present with nature and all its gifts’ and to leave behind preoccupations. It helped that there was no wifi on the boat! Each morning I shared an essential oil drop and an affirmation for the day. I started with ginger, since we were all going to experience the ocean!


The Galápagos

After leaving the wonderful city of Quito Ecuador, our flights to the Galápagos Islands went off without a hitch. We arrived and boarded our vessel, the Tip Top II. Gorgeous decks, ample space for meals and relaxation, great staterooms with ensuite bathrooms, all fully equipped. We unpacked, had our first lecture on the magical place we were privileged to visit and set off for our first hike on Santa Cruz Island and swim in the ocean waters. The Galápagos controls the number of visitors and all visitors must be accompanied by a naturalist and each naturalist can only accompany a small group. We were blessed to have a woman named Lourdes who went by “LuLu” who was born on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos and came from a family of naturalists. Her love and deep understanding of the islands and their gifts was fun, inspiring and full of constant learning for us! All our friends fell immediately in love with her infectious laugh and so appreciated her rapport with the entire crew of the Tip Top. It takes a lot to run a week-long experience which includes wet and dry landings, kayaking, snorkeling, swimming and hiking. There were 10 crew members in all, including our cruise director Carlos who woke us each morning with a sweet musical interlude and his voice over the intercom, “Good morning ladies, it is now 7 a.m. And we will be happy for you to join us for breakfast at 7:30.”

Meals were fresh and full of local fare. I learned to love all the ripe papaya and various ways plantains were prepared. Coffee and tea were always available with the best crunchy cookies in a glass jar nearby. Every day breakfast was different and included familiar and unfamiliar foods. I appreciated being able to choose between a pancake or a crepe made with quinoa!

What amazed me most was the way the flora and fauna were so unique to each of the several islands we visited. We had been anticipating the blue footed boobie but did not expect to be so delighted by the red footed boobies, the Nasca boobies, the mocking birds, the swallow tails and so many more. It took us a few days not to call ‘seals’ those that were either sea lions or fur seals which were completely different species. One of the many gifts of this experience was to learn to pay close attention to what you are looking at. Something we all tend to do is give life a cursory glance and think we ‘saw’ what was in front of us. In the Galápagos, you had to pause and really look to see that what was in front of you was new! Over 80% of what we saw on each island could not be seen anywhere else in the world and that included the terrain, the plant life and the lava formations. Sometimes, I felt we were on another planet!

Everywhere we went, whether in the middle of the ocean or on land, LuLu was pointing out what we were seeing. We learned how the Galápagos were created and continue to be created by the eruption of volcanoes. She helped us understand the many ways that birds, reptiles and mammals may have arrived on the islands, through storms and washing ashore. I tried to imagine an iguana clinging to a downed tree branch for miles and miles over the ocean!

As new creatures arrived to the islands and found the terrain and the natural order different than where they came from, they adapted both physically and behaviorally to the new order. Iguana that were land animals evolved to become swimmers and now we see thousands of marine iguana that you don’t find anywhere else! When we learned that each of the animals find their ‘niche’ in the ecosystem and adapt to fit it, it made me wonder what is the niche for human beings in nature?

In between learning to discern the call of the female verses the male boobie and recognizing the characteristic differences between sea lions and seals, I was glad to have my patch which delivered mild motion sickness medicine. We were on the open ocean, so half of us found ourselves in need of support. Thank goodness it worked!

As I mentioned previously, we had set intentions with our red strings and I shared a daily drop of a pure essential oil. I would give each person a drop of oil on their hand or sometimes in their water or tea. Our first daily drop of essential oil was ginger, which was anciently used as a digestive and decongestant and the affirmation was: “I am full of empathy and compassion. I have everything needed to move through my day and there is enough of me to share. I send love to every situation of which I am aware that needs the attention of love and light to bring it into alignment with good. I know that my word is powerful and that my thoughts create. I now speak my word knowing that I have activated a ripple of good from me to all of life. All is well and I am awake.”

Each of our fellow travelers appreciated the moment of reflection, and then we headed out for our exploration of Bachas Beach, where the sand dunes are nesting grounds for Galápagos Green Turtles.


Exploring the Islands and the Underwater Life of Galápagos

Exploring the islands by foot, by panga and by snorkel is something I will always treasure. Each modality brought with it different delights and each was so important to fully experiencing all that the Galápagos territory has to offer.

After our first wet landing on the northern coast of Santa Cruz Island, we had a dry landing at El Barranco (a.k.a. “Prince Phillip’s Steps”) I was delighted to learn this naming was due to his philanthropic support. This landing was on Genovesa Island, also the home of Darwin’s Bay. We were thrilled to meet red footed boobies on the branches of Palo Santo trees at nearly every turn. And we had the opportunity to swim and snorkel in this caldera of an extinct volcano and meet our first Parrot Blue Fish!

All together, we visited six of the 10+ Galápagos Islands and traveled by night up to seven hours to reach them! We saw Santa Cruz, Genovesa, Santa Fe, San Cristobal, the mysterious Floreana and Espanola. Each was distinct and exhilarating.

On Santa Fe we learned how this island of cactus and land iguanas is a symbiotic relationship. For every cactus there was a least one iguana standing as sentry for its source of water and food. What an amazing thing to watch the iguana avoid the prickles while enjoying the benefits of both the fluid and the meat of the cactus branches. Here we were greeted by the bright red-orange array of the Galápagos ‘weed’ and the back drop of the water decorated with sea lions packed among the rocks. On the higher elevations we could see the more ‘senior’ sea lions enjoying a penthouse view!

While snorkeling in the open ocean after jumping (or sliding in my case) off the panga boats into the water, we swam with sharks, sea turtles and bioluminescent fish. I’ll admit that I screamed into my mask when I first encountered a massive sea turtle, but he or she was totally indifferent to my presence and proceeded to swim away with its magnificence.

On Floreana Island, famous for the story and movie “The Galápagos Affair,” we visited Post Office Bay and learned how whalers used to mail their correspondence. A makeshift post office can be found a short walk into the dunes, and even today visitors drop off and collect letters and postcards in order to hand deliver them. We found a few for folks near our home in Cape Cod, and our friends took postcards to deliver in Colorado Springs; Napa, California; and Rochester, New York!

The hike on this day included the rare sighting of an Albatross couple who affectionately groomed each other. We also saw many Nasca boobies and even one sitting on an egg. Underwater sea lions dived and played with us snorkelers and a few lucky souls swam with a manta ray.

Back on the boat each evening we would enjoy a cocktail hour, share stories and even have a dance party. We brought a simple wireless speaker and it worked beautifully. Lulu and the crew were entertained by us and supported our celebrations by having yummy snacks ready every evening and having a special cake for our friend Julie who turned 60 while we were on the boat. We loved learning about Lulu and her family, which includes 160 people out of the 1500 people who live on Santa Cruz Island.

In addition to all the learning, we had safety drills and during one I was an actor playing injured for the crew to get a real experience. I had to be carried on a stretcher across rocks and onto a panga and then onto the boat. It seemed so real that nearby boats sent messages to ask if we needed help! The crew were good sports when I popped off my stretcher once the captain gave the okay.

On our last full day on the boat we cruised back to Santa Cruz Island and visited the Charles Darwin Research Center, where we met hundreds of the islands’ most famous residents, the Galápagos tortoise. They are gigantic and often live more than 100 years. They live on just three of the islands now due to exploitation and volcanism but the Research Center and Station are working on breeding and repopulation projects, which we supported by our presence and a few t-shirt purchases.

After sharing land, sea and boat adventures with LuLu, we had a tearful and joyful goodbye when we disembarked. Leaving the land of giant tortoises, iguana, blue footed, red footed and Nasca Boobies, sea lions, sea turtles and bioluminescent fish made us all long for one more day, but Peru and the Andes awaited our arrival.


Next stop: Lima and the Journey to Machu Picchu

Flying into Lima, Peru from the Galápagos was an easy transition since we were still at sea level. Those of us who needed the support started taking our altitude medicine for the ascent that would soon follow. We immediately dove into learning about the Peruvian cultures, including the Inca but also including those less famous like the Chimu, Nasca and Moche. We were introduced to these cultures from the Larco Museum, which holds one of the world’s largest collections of Peruvian artifacts. Seeing the amazing exhibits accompanied by a knowledgeable expert (the museum’s curator), our appetites were wetted for lunch and more!

Our first lunch in Peru included a cooking demonstration, where we learned several traditional recipes and got to taste every one. When I’m back home cooking now, I will only use the top layers of the red onion and soak them in water, to lessen their strength, and when I juice a citrus fruit like lemon or lime I won’t squeeze every last drop out because that causes bitterness from the seeds and skin!

The meal and the presentation were among the most delightful and delicious of our entire journey. I especially loved the fresh ceviche, which was made right before our eyes.

We enjoyed a free afternoon to explore downtown Lima. The centrally located Plaza de las Armas was a feast of sights to see. We just got a taste and know that a return to Lima is in our future. One day with a museum, a Peruvian food presentation and an exploration of downtown was a wonderful teaser. We needed to move on because The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu were still ahead.

Arriving in Cusco at over 11,000 feet above sea level, we journeyed to the Sacred Valley, first meeting some llamas and alpacas who enjoyed eating greens from our outstretched hands. We were amazed to see corn growing everywhere and to learn that there were over 50 varieties some with very specific uses like purple corn for a drink called “Chicha morada,” which was a lot like drinking grape jelly! The diversity in corn was dwarfed by the hundreds and hundreds of potato varieties.

Our hotel in the Sacred Valley was a gorgeous oasis of flowers, flowing water, small cafes and beautifully furnished rooms. There was a small chapel on the grounds, where I enjoyed sitting in meditation and writing in my journal. I was visited by a hummingbird who deposited a gift on the top of my head!

The group leader and local expert were great at making sure we had regular restroom stops, because we were all constantly drinking water to minimize the effects of the high altitude. I moved more, slowly but I was able to participate in everything.

We continued learning about the Inca civilization by visiting our first ruins, which had a surprising amount of construction intact. It was fascinating to realize that this civilization used gold to represent the God of the Sun but not as a currency. Also the Incas were likely the first to dehydrate meat and veggies to survive during droughts. After spending time in the Galápagos and witnessing how species evolved, it was so interesting that Andean people evolved into lean and strong people to move more easily in the high altitudes, since too much muscle takes lots of oxygen.

A visit to Chincheros town included a visit to a weaving cooperative. Weaving is an important and ancient art that preserves the Peruvian culture in vibrant color. Most of our group came back with new sweaters, scarves and hats!

That night we prepared a small bag to hold all our belongings that would come with us to Machu Picchu. We were excited to take the Inca Rail and weave over the Andes. We shared with our group leader and our local expert, Paco, that we wanted to be sure and learn about the spiritual aspects of what the locals call “Pacha Mamma” or Mother Earth. We so appreciated that our expert prepared a ritual of coca leaves that allowed each of us to have a personal experience of emotional release and spiritual vision. I’ll share details in my next installment.


Conquering the Mountain

Before ascending Machu Picchu we had the experience of climbing up the Ollantaytambo Ruins in Cusco. This was a great practice run, because I realized that my walking sticks were essential and when I should stop for rest and how to take constant sips of water to stay hydrated but to be without a restroom for up to two hours.

The grandeur of the Andes had surrounded us since we arrived in the Sacred Valley. I couldn’t imagine how we would ever get up so high. Our train ride took us through lush forests and streams which we could see from above and on all sides of the windowed comfortable train. We sat four in a group with a table between us and were able to chat, have some coca tea and snacks. My spouse finally got her chance to try Inca Cola, which was a chartreuse color and tasted just like bubble gum.

The train ride was so fun and exhilarating, we almost didn’t want it to end. Once at the station in Machu Picchu we had our small bags and trekked a short way past fountains, steep hilly streets lined with restaurants, hotels and shops. The feeling of the place was what I imagined the Wild West to have been in the United States — a far outpost that got built up over time with brave and adventurous souls who made it a real place.

Upon arrival we boarded a bus with just our day packs and headed up the mountain. The bus ride was just 30 minutes and we were at the gates to the Machu Picchu ruins. We had a wonderful buffet lunch accompanied by Andean musicians and were fortified for our hike. One of the many great things about traveling with Road Scholar is that everything is anticipated and handled. We all had our passes with our names on them for the privilege of hiking up to the mysterious and wonderful stone structures from the fifteenth century that take your breath away. Our expert Pico worked at the site for over a year and knew exactly where and how to lead us so that our first view was an awe-inspiring surprise.

The rest of the hike defies description and my ability as a writer. As I think about being there my heart fills with gladness and the deepest of gratitude for the people who were inspired to build something so spectacular and strong that it remains standing after 600 years of storms, winds and time. They use a term in Peru that I have come to love, “The cloud forest.” The cloud forest hangs around the mountains and moves and breathes with it changing form, location and viscosity.

After hiking through the ruins and a few reconstructed buildings that illustrated how life in the 1400’s may have been lived we were stunned to silence. The nooks and openings and terraces gave hints of an aesthetic and grand existence. Because of the story the soil can tell, we knew that this civilization loved flowers flowing all around them!

At this time, Paco introduced our ritual. On the train he had each of us choose our coca leaves. He asked us to choose three for ourselves and three for someone else we wanted to bring to the mountain. Three is auspicious for the Peruvian people. The first leaf represented the deepest part of the earth, the second the surface and strength of the earth and the third the sky. In Peruvian culture the deepest part of the earth is represented by the snake or serpent because its body is closest to Pacha Mamma. The surface and strength is represented by the Puma or mountain lion and the sky is represented by the condor. Each of us chose a larger leaf, a medium leaf and a smaller leaf. We organized them according to their size and throughout the journey up the mountain we whispered those things we wanted to release and those things we wanted to manifest in our lives. As Paco described it, our breath and our words were in the leaves and the mountain would take them. In a silent ritual each of us handed our leaves to Paco, first for ourselves and then for the other. The leaves were combined and tucked into a crevice to become part of the mountain and at the same time part of our hearts.

We were in the town below Machu Picchu called Aguas Calientes and our hotel was lovely and modern with a wonderful restaurant inside and tons of choices nearby. We had dinner at our leisure and all but a few of us had purchased tickets to return to Machu Picchu the next day. My second ascent was for gratitude. I spent an hour reflecting, writing and being in the grace of this magnificent experience.

I had a journal within which I wrote my thoughts and then asked each person to share a thought. My wife said it best at the beginning of her entry with these simple words: Gracias, Garcia, gracias Pacha Mamma.


Reflections

What I came with was a lot, what I left with was immeasurable. Based on living on a boat for a week, hiking, snorkeling and then changing climates and altitudes, I stuffed my suitcase and carry on to the brim with ‘just in cases.’ I brought a small umbrella, a rain jacket, walking sticks, medicine for motion sickness, medicine for altitude sickness, essential oils for general well being, two bathing suits, a skin suit, two hats, bug spray, antibacterial spray, tissues, waterproof phone cover, immune boosting supplements, a journal, a dozen pens and markers, an open mind and excitement!

I used it all and other than cutting back on the number of shirts I brought —my 22 inch roll-on and a 16-inch carry-on — were just right for the entire 18 days.

I returned with the same luggage and a few gifts, mostly t-shirts, socks, jewelry and chocolate. But the most incredible things I returned with were my memories and my feelings of awe and accomplishment.

I started out this blog mentioning that boats and altitude are challenging for me. I was very elated that I was able to bring the right supports and overcome my idea that I couldn’t do boating trips or ones that involved altitude. I can and I did, so now my horizon is broadened and I can see myself heading out to distant seas and new mountain vistas. This in itself made the experience worthwhile.

I was also left with even more curiosity and humility about the world, its people and its mysteries and histories. There is so much I don’t know and so much I want to learn. After this program, I better understand how our earth forms and how it continues to form. I better understand the complex and staggering brilliance of ancient civilizations. I have deepened my awe and gratitude for Nature and That which created it. My heart has expanded a few sizes to take in the beauty of the people we met and who opened their doors and told us their stories.

I re-look at my pictures every day. Hundreds of them, some I took, some others shared. I keep looking to remind myself that I was actually there. Yes, that was me on top of Machu Picchu. Yes, that was me snorkeling with a giant sea turtle. Yes, that was me holding a baby lamb and feeding an Alpaca. It was me sitting and writing looking at the ruins of Ollantaytambo.

I am haunted by the art of Guyasamin and want to learn more about his life and legacy. I brought home an Incan calendar and want to know more about the signs and symbols and how they relate to my life today. When I pick up my ukulele and upright dulcimer lessons again, I will channel the wonderful lecture on Andean music and remember the importance of carrying on traditions and playing with and for each other.

I came with privilege and opportunity to experience and to grow. I left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this privilege and with a determination to share it with the world. I hope you’ve enjoyed this retelling and I’m happy to answer any questions! Just leave them in the comment field.

Thank you Road Scholar for your commitment to excellence and education.

Learn more about the Road Scholar learning adventure The Best of the Galápagos and Peru: From Enchanted Islands to Machu Picchu


About the Author
Christie Hardwick is founder and curator of Inspiration Gatherings, an executive coach and an ordained minister. Christie is an American Leadership Forum Senior Fellow and faculty member. For five years, she served on the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Christie is spending most of her 60th birthday year on sabbatical in Italy with her wife Jane. They will return at the end of 2019 for the next chapter in their adventure.

Get our e-newsletter!

Stay in the loop on our new blogs, special offers, new adventures and more.